The first thing you notice as you land at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu are the mountains — in Nepal, you’re never too far away from them.
The mountains are a part of Nepal's very identity. You’ll lose count of the number of establishments named after some of the world's highest peaks, of which Nepal has eight. Everest Bank, Machapuchre water, Annapurna Saaris, Makalu Tours, Sagarmatha Bakery — the titans are everywhere. The world's tallest peak, the Mount Everest, is also pictured on all the Nepalese Rupee banknotes.
Women in public life
As you drive into town, you get a feeling that it’s a country very much like Pakistan — albeit, with some very stark differences. The most obvious one is the overwhelming presence of women in public life — in contrast to urban Pakistan, women in Kathmandu occupy all spheres of life.
Here, women are not anomalies or novelties in their respective fields. They ride scooters and motorcycles, run tea stalls and butcheries and trade in the raucous markets. What was perhaps most striking to me was that many of the women were walking the streets even after dark as they came home from work.
I was in town for work and had extended my visit to include the following weekend so I could get in some sightseeing. The day my meeting was scheduled, we were rained in due to a heavy downpour. Luckily, the next few days, we had clear blue skies. The monsoon season officially begins in Nepal from May and lasts all the way until August.
What's on offer
Before traveling to Nepal, one question I was asked quite often was what is there to even see in Nepal?
Not many Pakistanis travel to Nepal — surprisingly, it doesn’t even register on the local holiday radar. This is despite the fact that Nepal offers all Pakistani travellers a free of cost visa on arrival for 15 days. And yet, I did not come across a single Pakistani on my visit there.
Coming back to the earlier question, just within the Kathmandu Valley, there are a whopping seven Unesco world heritage sites. From the Royal city states of Patan and Bhaktapur to Boudhanath, the centre of Tibetan Buddhist life in Kathmandu and Pashupathinath, the holiest Hindu temple in all of Nepal, the country has plenty to offer to tourists interested in history and culture.
If the weather permits, the best way to explore these sites is on foot. Just be warned that the hike to the top of Swayambunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, will absolutely shatter your hamstrings. But it’s totally worth it, even if for the bird's-eye view of the capital from above.
Another great hike nearby in the Himalayas is the trek from Nagarkot all the way to the temple of Changu Narayan. Along the way, you will pass by the verdant Nepalese countryside and terraced fields.
A trip to Kathmandu would be incomplete without getting lost in the labyrinthine alleys and collection of temples in Durbar Square — the heart of the city. If you wait till late in the afternoon, you might even catch a glimpse of the Kumari, the living goddess at the Kumari Bahal.
Other than the cultural sites, you’re bound to run into a bunch of interesting characters along the way.
Finger lickin' good
One aspect of Nepal that is grossly underrated is its food scene.
Nepal is a majority Hindu and Buddhist nation, hence plenty of delicious vegetarian options are on offer. You cannot travel to Nepal and not savour on a plate of Momos — dumpling-like pockets stuffed with a variety of fillings. Then there’s the countless mom-and-pop noodle shops selling different types of pastas, ranging from soupy to dry varieties. Tibetan cuisine is another behemoth and a world unto itself that needs to be further explored.
Kathmandu also has a vibrant cafe scene, many of which feature live music. One afternoon, taking cover from the rain, I hopped into one where the singer was belting the John Lennon classic, “Imagine”.
While he was in between songs, deciding what to sing next, I asked him if he knew anything by a Pakistani artist.
“Yes, of course Atif Aslam,” came the excited reply.
In perfect enunciation, he proceeded to sing one of the pop star's iconic hits, “Aadat”.
Never lost in translation
Almost everyone in Nepal can speak a bit of Hindi or Urdu. The Nepalese have a freedom of movement agreement with India, where many students go for higher studies. Here, they are influenced by Bollywood and thus, a large section of the population has attained a level of proficiency in the language.
Interestingly, many young Nepalese consume Pakistani pop culture too — from Coke Studio hits to Hum TV dramas — on YouTube. Almost every Nepali I spoke to excitedly told me about their favourite Pakistani song or the latest show they were watching.
Coke Studio's Pasoori and drama series Khuda aur Mohabbat seemed to be quite the rage lately.
The Thamel neighbourhood of Kathmandu is the hub of touristic activity. It’s backpacker central. On the surface, it looks a lot like Karachi's Saddar area, but spend a few hours in it and you'll realise it’s another world altogether.
Hostels, nightclubs, restaurants, travel agents, porter stands and ageing bookshops all vie for space in this crammed little block of the city. While I’d highly recommend everyone to stay in Thamel, I would also warn against staying too long, lest you get too used to the area's creature comforts and forget to explore the real Nepal outside.
As I mentioned earlier, the Mountains, specifically the Himalayas, are deeply imbibed in the Nepalese DNA. The cherry on top of any Nepal sojourn would be to catch a glimpse of at least one of these mega structures.
There’s no better way than to directly trek to one of them. If you’re short on time, however, the next best option is to take the mountain flight.
An hour-long aerial odyssey that takes you on a spin over the roof of the world. The star attraction right at the end of the journey is a face to face moment with the highest point on Earth — Mountain Everest.
I couldn’t think of any other way to end my visit to Nepal. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to top this on my future travels.
All photos by author